Walter Tevis: The Hustler

Penguin’s Modern Classics imprint has often delved into popular and genre fiction for its reissues, but rarely has it covered so many with one author. Walter Tevis’s first two books, The Hustler and The Man Who Fell to Earth, are best remembered for the films they inspired. Both have been reissued this month, along with Tevis’s last novel The Queen’s Gambit, to submit to the test of literary longevity too. (An aside at this early stage. Which Tevis to read next? He wrote just five novels, three reissued here. A friend cites another, Mockingbird, as a favourite in her home. That leaves The Steps of the Sun, about which I know less than nothing.)

Walter Tevis: The Hustler

The Hustler (1959) introduces Eddie Felson (‘Fast Eddie’), a pool hustler whose reputation precedes – and possibly exceeds – him. “They say he’s the best. They say he’s got talent,” says one player in Bennington’s pool hall in Chicago. “Guys who seen him play say he’s the best there is.” “I heard that before,” says his companion. “I heard that before about a lot of second-rate hustlers.” “Sure. But everybody says he pushed over Johnny Varges out in LA.” “Did you see the game?” “No, but…” “Who did? You ever see anybody who ever saw Eddie Felson shoot pool?”

But Eddie Felson is real, and does shoot pool like nobody else, except perhaps Minnesota Fats. He comes to Bennington’s with his ‘manager’ Charlie to play Fats, reputedly the best pool shooter in the country. Their match lasts for 40 hours, and the chapter that relates it is as long as all the previous chapters in the book together. Tevis doesn’t so much build tension – he defuses it with blunt statements on who will win or lose the games he’s about to describe – as deal the reader in on Eddie’s gruelling experience.

Then someone turned off all the lights except those over the table that they were playing on and the background of Bennington’s vanished, leaving only the faces of the crowd around the table, the green of the cloth of the table, and the now sharply-etched, clean, black-shadowed balls, brilliant against the green. The balls had sharp, jeweled edges; the cue ball itself was a milk-white jewel and it was a magnificent thing to watch the balls roll and to know beforehand where they were going to roll. Nothing could be so clear or so simple or so excellent to do.

There is not much artistry in Tevis’s writing but there is some style. He leaves the reader in no doubt as to Eddie’s feelings and thoughts as he moves on from the game with Fats, encounters a girl, and gets involved with some (more) doubtful characters. What interested me about The Hustler was not the prose but the portrayal of a character so apparently unsympathetic. Eddie appears arrogant, if aware of it. Tevis doesn’t present us with a broken background to justify Eddie’s overcompensating hubris; are we supposed to like him, to root for him? Does it matter?

Eddie becomes a sort of proto-male archetype, determined to “find out his position” in the pool world, pushed by some kind of macho determination to challenge himself. It’s a character type I find fascinating probably because it differs so much from my own. (Where Eddie takes on a contest after being accused of being ‘chicken’, my response would have been, ‘Yes I am chicken. I’m afraid I might lose’. The same applies to my failure to understand why a boxer who wins a title fight would agree to a rematch. In that case of course, it’s the economics, stupid.) Only when Eddie establishes a relationship and has “something to go home to” does his hunger for success on the green baize begin to diminish. He is a complex character only in the sense that everyone is a complex character.

For a hustler such as Eddie, everyone is a hustler. (Though he dislikes being called a ‘shark’). Even radio ads are “hustles”. He can trust nobody, which turns out to be a wise move, as the book gives us a bold climax to Eddie’s fall and rise. It’s quite a brave ending, and fortunately Tevis resisted the temptation to write a sequel [no he didn’t! See below].  The sequel was also filmed, starring Paul Newman again, though the only thing it retained from Tevis’s book was its title, from the closing pages of The Hustler.  There, the pool table is “the rectangle of lovely, mystical green, the color of money.”


  1. Ah! You have caught me in a moment of – what’s the word? – hyperbole? Litotes? Just emphasising my igorance of it, Tony. I know about the three Penguins because I’ve read the blurbs, and Mockingbird is in print as a ‘SF Masterwork’, so that gives a handle on that. But I know nothing of The Steps of the Sun.

  2. Er… whoops! Just goes to show I shouldn’t rely on potted author biogs (I’m sure it said he wrote only five novels…). I didn’t realise my ignorance was going to be emphasised even further. Thanks for the clarification David! I’ve edited my post above accordingly.

  3. Nice review, though not sure it tempts me from the film to the book. Certainly not tempted by the sequels, writers really should be discouraged from going back in that way, it rarely works out well.

    I have The Steps of the Sun oddly enough, I’d never made the connection. It’s sf, a billionaire on an Earth running out of resources uses the only faster than light ship (I think it’s the only one, I’m going on memory though) to find stuff in space. He has an encounter with a sentient planet, which cures him of his drug addiction. That’s about all I remember. It’s an interesting book, I kept it when I culled a lot of my older sf, so it must have had something going for it, but it’s not really a classic so I doubt it will see a Penguin Modern Classics release. I suspect there’s a reason it’s not his best known.

    Unusual for a writer to leap genre to genre as Tevis did. I suppose the common theme is a certain cinematic quality, Steps of the Sun would make a good movie from what I recall of it.

    Nice cover, Penguin do often excel at those.

  4. A quick scan of your author list says you have not reviewed (but may well have read) either Raymond Carver or Dashiell Hammitt. I can’t help but think both were precursors to Tevis — they wrote books that produced excellent film adaptations. I have not read The Hustler and admit that Paul Newman’s portrayal was so powerful that I would have to consciously forget the film before I read the book. Any thoughts you have linking them — and perhaps adding John Fante in — would be most welcome. An “offshore” opinion on these icons is most useful.

  5. Do you mean Chandler rather than Carver there Kevin?

    Obviously I can’t speak to John’s views, but if that is who you mean I consider personally Chandler (and to a lesser extent Hammett) both streets ahead of Tevis as writers. Carver too, though I’ve read less of him and he’s a very different sort of beast from what I have read.

    Of course, I’ve read Tevis’s sf just, which is not his best work, so I may be biased by that. John’s read the better Tevis, I suspect.

    I should post sometime, here or on mine, about the holy trinity of hardboiled, Chandler, Hammett and Spillane, and their respective merits and flaws. That said, I’d be very interested in John’s take on these writers myself, so I add to Kevin’s encouragement.

  6. I have read Chandler, Kevin, and Max has ferreted out my only blog post on him. I consider him an artist, his best work The Long Good-bye (and how I wish Penguin would issue the books in individual Modern Classics editions rather than the three-in-one bumper volumes we have!). Spillane I haven’t read and know only that Chandler considered him a hack.

    “Pulp writing at its worst was never as bad as this stuff … nothing but a mixture of violence and outright pornography.”

    Spillane’s response, I think, was to cry all the way to the bank. “Those bigshot writers could never dig the fact that there are more salted peanuts consumed than caviar.” And Ayn Rand’s approval of his prose style (and probably his anti-communist stance) deters me further. Do you place him higher than Chandler did, Max?

    I also haven’t read any Hammett (though I have read and liked Fante). Is The Thin Man the place to begin there?

    It’s hard to comment based on one book, but I don’t consider Tevis, as a prose stylist, to be in the same league as Chandler. Then again, Chandler couldn’t create a coherent plot to save his life, so each played to his strengths. I would want to read at least The Queen’s Gambit, which seems widely liked, before commenting more on Tevis. Certainly The Hustler is one of those books which has already gone up in my estimation since reading it.

    Thanks for the info on The Steps of the Sun, Max. What a diverse writer Tevis was!

  7. Agh, I just lost a lengthy comment. Oh well, here goes again.

    I do rate Spillane higher than Chandler did. That said, I wouldn’t recommend him to you particularly, and I definitely wouldn’t recommend him to Kevin. More on that in a moment.

    Chandler for me is all about the prose, I see him essentially as a literary writer working within the crime genre. He can also be a somewhat intellectual writer, addressing themes of justice, society, the responsibility of the individual, themes that would become classic material for serious crime fiction with aspirations beyond simply entertaining. A lot of crime cliches have their start with Chandler, he’s a big influence on the hardboiled genre, in part creating it.

    Hammett isn’t as good a prose stylist as Chandler (though Chandler rated him very highly), but he’s much stronger on plots. As you note, Chandler is weak on plot, it’s simply not what one reads him for. Hammett had actually been a Pinkerton which shows up in a greater sense of authenticity than many crime writers. His best creation is probably the continental op – an unnamed and overweight Pinkerton detective who gets involved investigating rather grubby murders and grifts. Grubbiness is a common feature actually, Hammett was reacting in part to the state of detective fiction at the time, dominated by drawing room mysteries, and was keen to get crime back out of the drawing room and onto the street. He avoids complex conspiracies, chains of clues, rather a murder will be committed over an insurance fraud or something equally mundane. He wrote a story, The Tenth Clew, which I read as almost a manifesto, a statement of literary intent. There’s no attempt to be fair with the reader in Hammett, to give a chance to guess whodunnit, instead it’s stories of unhappy lives and ugly crimes.

    The Thin Man is actually quite atypical, featuring an urbane and witty couple who solve crimes almost as an after-dinner pastime. It’s very good, and not a bad place to start despite being a bit uncharacteristic – it’s a lot of fun. Otherwise, The Maltese Falcon or Red Harvest (later of course to be filmed as Yojimbo by Kurosawa), which features the continental op. All that said, he’s at his best I think with short stories, and his continental op short story collections are very good.

    Now, Spillane. Spillane’s a pulp writer. He has an extraordinary immediacy and drive, his novels are definite pageturners. But his style’s crude and the content is often ugly. His detective, Mike Hammer, is virulently homophobic (a bit too much so to convince at times, I started getting a bit suspicious of how often he seemed to end up in situations involving gay men and found myself wondering if he protested too much, I don’t think Spillane meant one to do that though). The crimes are more involved, the response more brutal. There’s an almost pornographic level of violence, Hammer will shoot a man in the face and laugh as he does so, at one point he mocks a man burning to death with the failure of his schemes, he’s very much about almost Websterian revenge.

    If you enjoy pulp fiction, as I do, Spillane is a master of it. If your preferences run more to the literary, Spillane will be at best a disappointment, at worst rather repulsive. He is quintessentially pulp, with all that implies for good and bad.

    I could say more, but I’ve already run on a fair way. Hopefully the above helps a bit.

  8. What I like best about Chandler is the way that he creates a sense of place — perhaps that’s one reason I also bring up Fante because I think between the two of them they describe a former Los Angeles very well. Chandler’s idea of plot maybe to crime what Wodehouse is to the bumbling aristocracy (or Runyon to the streets of New York) but as he explores that it is the sideroads in both observation and dialogue that interest me. I’m also intrigued that Martin Amis has popped up in recent posts on this blog — the Amis books that I like best have that same characteristic of capturing their time and place. I love London (and aspects of LA for that matter) and wish there were more authors who were as good at bringing both these modern cities to life. We have lots of New York examples (and Irish as well for that matter — and I do like both) but these two tend to get overlooked. I had high hopes for Monica Ali’s book this spring for just that reason, but I am afraid it imploded.

    Max is right that Spillane falls outside my interests. Tevis might not so I will look forward to future posts with interest.

  9. On London, I have Londonstani on my TBR pile, a recent first novel by a London based author about the experiences of a young Londoner of Pakistani descent. That looks to have a real sense of place, albeit in the same way as a Kelman or Welsh (it’s written in the vernacular).

    But yes, generally London’s not as well served as some cities, I think that’s right. Then again, for evocation of place I tend to think it’s better to look to crime fiction than literary fiction, with occasional exceptions obviously. Sense of place is so central to crime that it’s hard for a book in that field to be any good and not to capture their time and place.

    Thanks for the Fante reminder Kevin, I’d forgotten I meant to pick those up. Well, sort of thanks, I was trying to slow down my purchasing when you reminded me…

  10. Of Tevis, I’ve read only The Hustler and The Man who Fell to Earth (the latter quite recently). As a stylist, he’s certainly no match for Chandler, in fact I don’t think there’s much comparison. At his best, Tevis has a certain dry directness that is appealing in small doses. The Hustler is certainly a solid piece of work, but I really do think the film (one of my all-time favourites) far surpasses it, with much stronger characterisation and a much better narrative structure: the pool story and the love story are much better integrated in the film, with the later’s tragic outcome lending an extrordinary weight to the final pool game.

  11. The film is a masterpiece, it’s hard for the book to match that.

    Still, it’s rare that a film does surpass the book, occasionally equal (Double Indemnity I think achieves that, and the film has a better ending), but the nature of the media allow books to have more depth.

    But when we’re talking a film like The Hustler, well…

  12. Damn you both; I’m going to have to see the film now.

    Thanks for persisting and reposting your comment when you lost it, Max. I was going to suggest always copying a post before you click the Submit button, just in case, but then just today I lost a long comment (on the Martin Amis thread) by hitting CTRL-W instead of Shift-W. No way of escaping that. Bloody Windows machine.

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